Information Architecture — what is it all about?

Information architecture (IA) is an integral part of user experience. Yet, when hearing the term IA a lot of people will think of someone who “organises a lot of stuff”. What they don’t know is that it is much more than that.

Information Architecture is the way you arrange the parts of something to make it understandable.

Still don’t get it? It’s best to begin with the origins of it. Let’s go back in time…

From the beginning of time, people have been generating and organising large quantities of information. Before computers and the internet, the main places where large databases of information were organised were libraries. In 330 B.C., ancient Egypt’s Library of Alexandria listed its contents in a 120-scroll bibliography. Interestingly, IA is rooted in librarian information science.

Modern use of the term IA, strictly related to the design of information, was officially introduced by Richard Wurman in 1977 during a conference at the American Institute of Architecture. He believed that a person who structured information was as important as a person who structured buildings (i.e. architects).

In 1996, Wurman published “Information Architects” where he portrayed his ideas. Two years later, Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfled published a book called Information Architecture for the World Wide which increased interest in the topic.

Nonetheless, IA is all around us. You can find it whilst travelling (e.g. London Tube Map) or shopping in supermarkets.

The Internet accelerated the rate at which digital information is published, and the options for organising it are many. When building/designing a website it is important to first define what information the site is primarily about and how it’s going to be organised. An approach that helps some users find information faster might make the search slower for others.

A well designed IA will ultimately allow users to navigate easily through the website. A business using the optimal IA for its information system can enjoy advantages such as lowered costs of doing business since users spend less time finding information or duplicating information because they couldn’t find the original.

Ontology, Taxonomy and Choreography

Now that we know what IA aims are and the importance of it for a business, let’s have a look at some basic IA concepts.

Information Architecture is the practice of making sense of meaning through the consideration of ontology, taxonomy and choreography. Effective IA depends on the interplay of these three things.

Ontology is about establishing a particular meaning. Information is defined specific to the context in which it lives in.

Taxonomy is the way pieces of information (defined by ontology) are organised depending on the user’s needs. It shows how we group similar pieces of content together.

Choreography is about how meaning (ontology) and structure (taxonomy) fit together and interact with each other to provide the user with the most valuable and delightful experience. It can be represented as a user flow, the path through a product that a user can take to accomplish a task. If done well, users receive the right amount of information they need when they need it.

In summary, Information Architecture has proven to be crucial to the design process. Thanks to it, users can know and understand Where they are, What they’ve found, What to expect and What’s around while enjoying a practical web-based experience. So it seems, IA is more than just “organising some stuff”.